I’m massively, massively happy that the lovely Aisling Weaver has resurrected the Weekend Writer challenge! The challenge goes out every Saturday, taking the form of a unique challenge to simply write to your heart’s content, whatever you feel inspired to write, using the weekly prompt for inspiration.
The Weekend Writer page on Aisling’s blog is here, and will explain the whole thing much more eloquently. Also, this week’s prompt post is here, and links together all the responses made by participants in the challenge!
The following short story is my response.
The Reese Family Gathering
So here’s the question I’ve been asking myself a lot lately. Can a broken thing ever really be mended? Or can you still see the hairline cracks when you hold up a magnifying glass against it?
And also: Are we broken, or are we just in the process of breaking?
By we, I mean Adrianne and me. My sister is younger than me but taller; more beautiful than me but also more vain; better dressed than me but much more insecure. I have been trying for so long to narrow these differences between us, in my head, and I’m not sure if it’s working. I still think of her and frown. I’m still angry.
“Diana,” my mother says while she’s chopping peppers, “when’s your sister arriving?”
It’s the evening of the Reese family’s bi-annual get together. Mum’s making a batch of chilli con carne – forget anything that might be said about feeding an army or the five thousand and substitute the image with a mass of people that is somehow bigger and more hungry – and dad’s outside trying to pull together a gazebo big enough to seat all of us.
My elder sister Rhiannon is sitting looking comfortable on one of the bar stools along the breakfast bar in the kitchen, lifting not a finger to help while mum fusses around her. She’s reading a book that looks like chick-lit fluff to me, and every so often she looks over to where her two five-year-olds are playing on the rug by the patio door. They’re good enough kids, although I’m not sure whether that fact is in any way connected with Rhiannon.
“I didn’t think she was coming,” I reply.
Mum stops chopping peppers. Rhiannon lowers the book to shoot me a look that’s meant to be dominated by her raised pencil eyebrows, but the accusation is spoiled by the indifference residing in the flat half smile and expressionless eyes.
“It’s the Reese family dinner,” she tells me. And I know this already.
You only came for the chance to show off, I want to say.
Mum looks upset. The knife is resting on the chopping board, her slack fingers barely gripping it.
“Mum, don’t worry. I’m sure she’ll turn up. I probably got my facts wrong.”
“Call her,” she tells me, looking directly into my eyes.
“But I’m not sure –”
“Did you speak to her? Did she say she wasn’t coming?”
“No, I was just guessing.”
“Then call her.” Her tone and gaze brook no argument.
I’m grateful to escape from the kitchen, but the hallway has its own hazards. I can see the first of the aunties arriving, making a clatter in the tiled porch while they take off their coats.
Aunt Lizzy spots me. “Diana, dear!”
She runs forward and enfolds me in her strong, fleshy arms covered up in the long sleeves of a velvet dress that may well be an antique. I smell Chanel No. 5 and feel the pearls around her neck pressing against my cheek. Aunt Lizzy is Adrianne’s favourite aunt, but her affection goes out to all her nieces without prejudice. Even Rhiannon in all her self-absorption will stop and really talk to aunt Lizzy.
“Where is Adrianne?” she asks me.
“I’m just going to give her a call,” I tell her. “She hasn’t shown up yet and to be honest I’m not sure –”
“Oh but she must come,” Lizzy says. “This is a Reese family gathering! Now, where’s your mother, I have a fine Chablis that I want her to try.”
“We’re having chilli, auntie. Mum has some Cabernet Sauvignon standing by.”
Aunt Lizzy shakes her head in mock disgust. “I hope it’s a good one. Oh, well, perhaps we can all have some as an aperitif instead.” She laughs loudly and shrilly and gives me a none-too-subtle wink.
I manage to grab the cordless phone and escape upstairs where the house is blessedly quiet. I can hear the ruckus going on downstairs but up here, I’m reminded that this is the house we all grew up in. Adrianne’s bedroom is the first one ahead of me. I gingerly push the door open and go inside, and sit on her bed.
It’s strange now that Adrianne has moved out and taken all her things with her. For years it seemed that she would never really leave this house. She would leave on some grand adventure, chasing all manner of seemingly unattainable dreams – fame in the United States, wealth in the big city, a second, better, less embarrassing family anywhere else but here. Then it would all fall apart and she’d come crawling back to the safety and security of the Reese family nest.
I bring myself up short. It’s not charitable to think like that. I run my thumb up and down the pads on the phone, wishing I could have just forgotten her number, unwilling to dial it and hear her voice and wait for the wash of memories and hurts to assault me again.
But I dial the number.
She answers the phone on the third ring. It sounds like she was waiting for someone else to call, because the “Hello?” of her answering the phone is bright and eager.
I can almost hear her mood sinking lower. “Hi.”
“I’m calling on mum’s behalf.” Just in case you thought I was calling for a chinwag. “It’s family night. She’s making chilli, and all the aunties are arriving. Lizzy asked after you.”
“Well, I’m busy.”
I take a deep breath. “Are you sure you can’t just come over for a little while?”
“Why did mum ask you to call me?”
“Because I was the one who said you probably wouldn’t come.”
“Do you want me to come?”
Another deep breath. I’m a long while before answering. “Yes,” I say, finally.
I don’t want us to break, Adrianne, I really don’t. I want to tell her how I’ve been trying to reconcile us in my mind, but the thought of her still makes me angry.
“Don’t expect anything from me,” she says. “I’ll come, but I’m coming to see mum and dad and aunt Lizzy. Not you or Rhiannon.”
The hostility in her voice is commonplace by now. It would take a lot for her to shock me. We all long ago learned how to arm ourselves against Adrianne.
How can I explain the rejection that I felt when, after months of supporting her – morally and financially – while she wrote her third novel, she published something that mirrored us back to ourselves like we were not her family, but the grotesque characters from a Brothers Grimm fairy tale?
I knew why she’d done it. To push us away, distance herself from such a large, female-oriented, dysfunctional and brash bunch of people. To hurt us.
“Fine,” I say in a clipped voice. “I’ll tell her you’re on your way.”
I stumble downstairs and put the phone back in its cradle, and then I lurch unsteadily into the bathroom. My head’s spinning and I feel nauseated.
There’s a copy of Adrianne’s book on the windowsill in amongst a few other novels and some comic books, and I allow myself a smirk of victory that her novel has already made its way into the bathroom to live out the rest of its days as a book to be read on the toilet.
I’m thinking uncharitable thoughts again.
I splash cold water on my face and take a few deep breaths, and finally return to the kitchen. The aunties have made their way outside, and through the open patio door I can hear Lizzy’s shrill laughter and dad’s amiable voice as he jokes with her.
Mum is standing in front of the stove stirring a huge Le Creuset where the chilli ingredients sizzle and steam, sending a warm, comforting aroma of spice and frying onions around the kitchen.
“She’s coming,” I tell mum. She doesn’t turn to face me, but her shoulders sag a little and I watch her set down her wooden spoon and swipe at her eyes with bunched fists. Like a little child, I think. She’s upset at our falling out, and she probably hurts too to know what Adrianne wrote about all of us. Perhaps she tells herself that the novel is about some other family with too many daughters and aunts.
But no. Mum’s not stupid. The hurt and happiness I can see in those sagged shoulders brings me up short. Mum has suffered not only from the words that Adrianne wrote, but also the words that we said to one another in anger and hatred. She has watched her family bend and nearly break, and she has wondered all this time whether we will be able to mend ourselves.
I put down my wine glass and take a hesitant step towards her, but Rhiannon is quicker. She closes her book and puts it down on the kitchen counter, then gets up and looks at me with eyes that are full of concern. I wonder if Rhiannon, too, has armoured herself against our angry, storm-tempered sister.
Without saying anything she goes to where mum stands and rests a hand tentatively on her shoulder. It’s not the warmest gesture of affection I’ve seen this evening, but from Rhiannon it means a lot.
“Diana,” she says, turning to me, and there’s the ghost of a real smile on her face. “Can you set an extra place at the table for Adie?”
Adie. Nobody’s called her by her pet name for so long. It hurts to hear it spoken, but it also makes me absurdly happy, for some reason.
I consider the question. Adrianne will be rude, spiteful and in all probability will hardly touch the chilli that mum has slaved over. She will drink too much wine and then demand a lift back to the train station from dad later on.
But this is the Reese family gathering. I think I can find room for one more.